Are users getting dumber, or is software getting more complicated? On July 26th Jeff Davis discussed this and other issues during this Guild Meeting.If you couldn’t join us then, enjoy the transcript; and we hope to see you on our next live Guild Meeting. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail, or on the Guild Meeting calendar.

Are users getting dumber, or is software getting more complicated?On July 26th Jeff Davis discussed this and other issues during this Guild Meeting. If you couldn’t join us then, enjoy the transcript; and we hope to see you on our next live Guild Meeting. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail, or on the Guild Meeting calendar.

Note: TechProGuild edits Guild Meeting transcripts for clarity.

MODERATOR: Good afternoon. Today we are hosting a TechProGuild Guild Meeting on the topic, Dumb User Stories.

JEFF DAVIS: I would like to thank everyone for joining us this afternoon. I’m Jeff Davis, your host for today’s Guild Meeting.

Training users and reducing costs
JEFF DAVIS: If you work in a help desk, here’s a dumb user story I know you’ve heard: “Um, yeah, the cup holder on my PC is broken.” Here’s another dumb user story that’s made the rounds over the years: IT asks, “Yes, could you make a copy of the disk and send it to us?” And then a photocopy of a diskette comes in via the fax machine.

We published “The best dumb user stories of 1999,” which is available in the TechRepublic/TechProGuild downloads section, and it contains hundreds of hilarious stories submitted by TechRepublic members. One of my favorite jokes from that document is “What is the definition of megabytes? The answer: In Kentucky, that’s a good day fishin’!”

MODERATOR: Hey, Jeff, tell me, why should we discuss this topic? How do dumb user stories help?

JEFF DAVIS: We in IT have a lot of fun at the expense of so-called dumb users. But the sad truth is that dumb (or under-trained) users cost our companies money.

NAMASTE: Yes, that is true.

JCARLISLE: Which is the biggest problem, under-training or just sheer stupidity?

JEFF DAVIS: Jcarlisle, my humble opinion is that it’s under-training. Most non-technical people are afraid of computers, and they need handholding to come up to speed. Unfortunately, we in IT don’t consider ourselves responsible for training.

MJACKMAN: Well, as a former teacher, I’m always reluctant to cite stupidity; maybe it’s ignorance.

JEFF DAVIS: Mjackman, I agree. What most of us IT people forget is that there was a time when we didn’t know a bit from a byte, either.

MJACKMAN: Who is responsible for training?

JEFF DAVIS: When I was an IT manager, I considered it my responsibility to train end users. I offered brown bag lunches in exchange for attendance in a training session, and I gave my coworkers plenty of written materials to study on their own time.

NAMASTE: How did that go? Did you get a good response?

JEFF DAVIS: They loved the brown bag lunches. It gave them something to do (chew) while they were thinking or listening to me talk about software.

JCARLISLE: There’s very little time to train people when you’re busy putting out fires all day long.

JEFF DAVIS: Jcarlisle, you’re right. It’s hard to make time for in-house training if you’re trying to solve problems all day. But the nagging question is, how many of those fires would never have started if the users had been adequately trained? If you’re the IT support person in your company, you have to get someone in senior management to commit to providing training to your end user population. If you don’t, productivity will suffer, and you’ll keep answering help calls from people who don’t know how to copy a file to a floppy disk.

JCARLISLE: Well, you have a chicken and egg thing going there. Until management coughs up the proper resources, you can’t get the proper training in.

JEFF DAVIS: Jcarlisle, that’s why you have to make time, even if it means putting in some extra hours or letting some other projects slide.

One TechProGuild member wrote me saying that in her company, they do Saturday training sessions—9:00 A.M. to 12:00 P.M., twice a month. And the company pays the people to come in.

Have you heard the one about…
NAMASTE: Here’s a story for you: A guy calls me up and says he’s having trouble with WordPerfect. I ask him to tell me what’s in his window, and he pauses and then says he can see the sun and trees. It’s a nice day out!

JEFF DAVIS: Namaste, you’re cracking me up! That reminds me of the guy who says, “Close the door,” and the user gets up, closes the door to his office, and says, “Okay, it’s closed.”

Start with the basics
JWALLEN: My question is just what and how far do you want to train the users? I mean, do you want to train them to be self-sufficient (thereby eliminating the need for support) or do you train them only on what they need?

MJACKMAN: Jwallen, will end users ever be self-sufficient?

JEFF DAVIS: Jwallen, I think most users want to know only what they need to do their jobs. If that means I give them a cheat sheet with numbered instructions, such as 1. Do this, 2. Do that, 3. Do the other thing, then so be it. It counts as training.

The thing that I hate most about training, and this can happen in any company, is when new hires are inadequately trained. How many times have you answered a help desk call from a new employee who is embarrassed to admit that he or she can’t check e-mail? There’s no excuse for that negligence.

The solution is to demand that IT get a place on the agenda for “new employee orientation.” When you train new employees, make sure they know how to turn on the machine, how to power down safely, how to check e-mail, how to open the word processor, and where the printer is. That’s the bare minimum.

The other thing tech support professionals can do to facilitate training is train on an ad hoc basis during service calls. If you have to go to the end user’s station, ask the end user if you can do anything to help.

JWALLEN: But with new employee orientation, you would have to have multiple levels of training so that those people who use only a word processor aren’t learning the ins and outs of FTP, graphics, and so on.

JEFF DAVIS: Jwallen, you’ve got to walk before you can run. Most folks need to know only how to create and print a document. They don’t need much more skill than that.

MJACKMAN: Let’s hear some good stories. Which OS has the best ones?

JEFF DAVIS: One of my favorite support stories is about the end user on the third shift in a casino in Las Vegas. “My mouse won’t work,” she’d complain. So the day shift IT people went out and cleaned the mouse, checked the connection, and replaced the mouse. Still, this user complained. Finally, someone from IT actually went to visit the user on her shift and discovered what the problem was. Believe it or not, this user was trying to operate the mouse with her foot!

I had a contract to support remote users in five cities by telephone. That’s one of the most challenging jobs I have ever tackled. I’d be looking at the same software (Q&A) as these office managers were. I’d say, “Now see where it’s displaying <whatever>?” And they’d say, “No, I don’t see it.” It can be very frustrating.

The most troubling thing about supporting the so-called “dumb” users is that they’re easily offended. If you’re an IT person, stressed out with projects and deadlines looming and hopped up on caffeine, it’s very easy to be curt or downright rude with an end user. Unfortunately, that’s anathema to your career. We have to have the patience of Job, or we risk losing credibility. And the only thing worse than a dumb user is an angry dumb user.

JEFF DAVIS: Here’s another one for you: When I was IT manager for a home health company, I discovered that the accounts receivable/payable clerks were wasting a colossal amount of time. They would enter their invoices or check requests into the spreadsheet or application (Lotus/PeachTree). Then they’d re-key all the values again into a desktop calculator. They didn’t trust the software. They felt they had to have a “tape” in order to make sure they’d entered everything correctly.

Have any of you ever been in that position? Where you’d discovered a grotesque waste of company time and resources? And if so, how did you respond?

In my case, I went to my boss, the CFO, and spilled my guts. He decided he would handle it in his own way, which was to go to the supervisor of the offending dumb users. Eventually they gave up their double data entry habits, but it was hard.

One of the funniest stories I can remember from my telephone support days is when I tried to explain to a user how to insert a 3.5″ diskette into the drive. I kept telling her to gently push the disk in and wait for the click. But the click never came. She was smashing the thing in backward. The label unpeeled and the disk got stuck. It was not a good day in the annals of tech support.

One of the funniest e-mails I received from a TechRepublic/TechProGuild member was from a woman who swore this story was true. Seems the “big honcho” in the company got a new computer, but decided he didn’t like the way the desktop looked. He wanted his old desktop back. So he unplugged the new monitor, tracked down his old monitor, and plugged it into his new box. (He assumed everything was stored in the monitor.) That story absolutely kills me.

Wasting time precious time
MJACKMAN: I remember one writer who was completely retyping transcripts to clean them up, even though the originals were in a file that she had. I believe you helped solve that problem.

JEFF DAVIS: Mjackman brings up an excellent topic—dumb users who waste time out of sheer ignorance. I’m a big believer that one should never retype anything one can copy and paste. That’s one of the first lessons I teach all my users.

MJACKMAN: Yes, ignorance of simple word processor or spreadsheet shortcuts causes a lot of wasted time. I have experienced this in several companies where I trained secretarial staff on even simple keyboard shortcuts, basic macros, even how to set tabs and make bullets.

However, very rarely have companies I’ve worked for trained employees from the inside. Rather, they send employees to seminars, which brings up another point…. How do we get around this?

JEFF DAVIS: Ah, training at seminars. All I can say about third-party training is check references!

MJACKMAN: It’s very hard for me to find a class where I fit in. Every time I’ve been sent to beginning or intermediate classes, whether on applications, networking, or OSs, they’ve been far too basic.

Defending dumb users
JWALLEN: I’ve heard the term “dumb users” used a lot in the IT industry. I have a problem with this simply because it leads to negative impressions, which can only lead to a feeling of supremacy. There is an issue in the IT field brought on by IT professionals with big egos thinking that they run the companies they work for.

JEFF DAVIS: Jwallen, you’re absolutely right. In fact, I caught a lot of grief from a number of tech support professionals who objected to my use of the phrase “dumb user stories.” However, among IT people, I think it’s perfectly okay to use that term.

JCARLISLE: Dumb User Stories is kind of like David Letterman’s Stupid Pet Tricks. He points out that it’s the tricks that are stupid, not the pets.

JEFF DAVIS: Good point, Jcarlisle. And here’s an excellent way for an IT professional to “bond” with dumb users—tell a story about a user who’s even dumber than they are! I use that technique a lot. If I’m teaching a group, I’ll say, “Now you folks don’t feel bad if you didn’t know that [whatever the subject was]. Why, I remember working with someone one time who swore her computer was dead. Turned out the monitor wasn’t turned on!”

TLABASTIDAS: You bet! Anyway, it’s better to have a laugh with users instead of laughing at their expense (and making yourself an enemy in the office).

JEFF DAVIS: Dumb users are always apologizing to me for not knowing as much as they think they should know. Here’s a great trick for helping them feel better: Remind them how they felt when they first started driving. Remember how stressful it was to try to drive on a busy highway or parallel park? Things they take for granted now? That’s how they’ll feel about using software, after they have more experience.

Users aren’t the only ones who can be dumb
JEFF DAVIS: Even though the theme of today’s Guild Meeting is “dumb user stories,” I think it’s important that we also throw some “dumb IT people” stories in the mix.

JWALLEN: What about IT support who know only a single computing environment? That’s a dumb IT story.

JEFF DAVIS: Jwallen, good example of “dumb IT people.” Nothing’s worse than an arrogant IT person declaring, “Well, if this were Windows 98, I could help you, but you’re using that nasty Windows 3.x.”

NAMASTE: How about IT support who use the excuse “I can’t help you because that is an unsupported program/OS/computer.”

MJACKMAN: How about when IT says they don’t know what’s wrong, so they suggest that you reformat your hard drive.

JCARLISLE: That’s probably a bigger problem. Dumb IT people.

JEFF DAVIS: The problem with dumb IT people is that they think they’re smart.

JEFF DAVIS: Folks, there are two things I think we should all take away from this Guild Meeting. First, most dumb users are simply under-trained. They need a patient, sympathetic hand in helping them come up to speed. Second, training end users is (or ought to be) a core function of the IT department. We can’t just dump new technology in the laps of our nontechnical colleagues without taking the time to give them the training they need.

NAMASTE: Sounds reasonable.

TLABASTIDAS: You know, we tell a lot of things about our users, but it’s difficult to find someone in the IT department saying, “I did that.” But you’re right. Ask any user and IT personnel how they felt when a new OS was implemented.

NAMASTE: If there’s a mistake to be made on a computer, I’ve made it—and made it worse. That’s how I learn, by destroying my computers, unfortunately.

JEFF DAVIS: Tlabastidas raises an excellent point. How many times has a shop upgraded from Win9x to NT, without bothering to explain to the users that My Documents is gone and Personal is now the default folder for user files.

MODERATOR: Good point. Even the simple things can be confusing.

TLABASTIDAS: That happened in my company, when the former LAN manager changed to WFW (from DOS) without training the users. He’s still being blamed for a lot of things three years after he left.

JEFF DAVIS: I think the third thing we have to remember is this: Without end users (regardless of skill level), there would be no work for IT support professionals to do.

TLABASTIDAS: Well, we have to live somehow.

Thin Clients to the rescue
MJACKMAN: Do you think the emphasis on thin clients is a reflection of too much training overhead?

JEFF DAVIS: Thin clients are good things, I think, especially for those users who mainly need to print memos and read e-mail.

Story hour is over
MODERATOR: And we are out of time, dear Guild Meeting attendees. I thank you all for showing up this afternoon. This week is Grab Bag Week, which means we have a prize for you just for showing up; it could be a mug, a T-shirt, or a Frisbee. If you’re interested in receiving a prize, just send an e-mail to Put Grab Bag in the subject line.

Tomorrow we have another meeting, at 9:00 P.M. EST. Vincent Danen will be speaking on “Setting up servers with Mandrake 7.”

JEFF DAVIS: Thanks, everyone. Please check out the “best dumb user stories” in the TechRepublic download section. Here’s the URL:

MODERATOR: We also have Guild Meeting transcripts available. Thanks again for coming, and good morning/afternoon/evening, depending on your local time.
Our Guild Meetings feature top-flight professionals leading discussions on interesting and valuable IT issues. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail, or on the Guild Meeting calendar.